Yelm: Rural town struggles with the great escape from urban chaos
The Olympian August 13, 1989 By Brad Sevetson
Keeping ‘Pride of the Prairie’
YELM — If Western Washington is growing, Yelm is exploding. Just a decade or so ago, this prairie town’s streets were usually deserted and most of its residents were acquainttances. To save money on shopping, people drove to Olympia or Tacoma.
Today, cars, campers and trucks lumber along state Route 507 through Yelm at all hours of the day. And while residents can do most of their bargain-hunting in town, they are unlikely to see a familiar face.
Yelm is still a one-stoplight town, and most residents aren’t overly troubled by growth. But when stuck in rush hour traffic jams, they begin to have second thoughts. “On the one hand, growth is good for the community, good for local businesses,” said Dr. William N. Elledge, an internal medicine specialist at Yelm’s Nisqually Clinic. “On the other hand, we start to sacrifice some of the lifestyle advantages that brought us here to begin with.”
Between 1970 and 1980, the town’s population doubled. Since then the population has swelled by 6 percent a year, or twice as fast as the rest of Thurston County.
Those statistics are not reflected on the town’s main street, which with its taverns, hardware store and bowling alley resembles small towns across America. City park signs warn residents the area is off-limits to horses.
But the inhabitants tell a different story — in recent interviews with bypassers, it was unusual to find anyone who had lived in Yelm for longer than 10 years. Outside town limits, the countryside bustles with signs advertising anything from one to 200 acres for sale.
“We haven’t sold all the land we have listed, but we’ve sold a hell of a lot of it in the last two to three weeks,” said Yelm Realty salesman George E. Jones.
Much of the growth is invisible, tucked away in pockets of development in unincorporated areas like Lake Lawrence, Clear Lake and the dense Nisqually Pines single-family subdivision just north of town. With an abundant supply of affordable land located 20 miles from offices in both Olympia and Fort Lewis, southeast Thurston County has become a haven for commuters and retirees.
A 35,000-year-old spirit named Ramtha also has attracted flocks of followers to a $1.5 million mansion on the outskirts of town. Nobody knows precisely how many devotees of spiritual channeler J.Z. Knight have relocated to the Yelm area, but estimates range from the hundreds to more than a thousand.
So far Yelm’s population spurt has attracted no major new industry, no motels, and not even a McDonald’s. But small stores have sprung up to sell everything from sweat clothes to real estate along state Route 507, which shows signs of becoming a Lacey-style strip.
Shuddering at that prospect even as they welcome the new businesses, Yelm officials hope that a planned $7 million sewer system will direct growth back into town boundaries by making development there more attractive. Town officials also are studying street improvements and seeking new industries in an effort to broaden Yelm’s economic base.
“Thurston County is growing fast, and we have to grow with it,” said Yelm Mayor Ronald G. Lawton, a lean, wiry man who presents himself as a cheerleader for the town. “We just have to be sure we’re trying to stay ahead of the battle.”
First arson, now sludge
Several pressing issues have unified the community in recent years as residents rallied against arson and sludge. The arsons began several years ago, and included a blaze that caused $80,000 to Yelm City Hall.
Following an April 30, 1988 string of fires that damaged churches, businesses and an abandoned house within a square-mile area, residents and businesses put together a$20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of an arsonist who had plagued the town for several years.
The reward has not been collected, but the fires stopped after the February 1989 arrest of a leading suspect.
“It’s past history,” said Lawton of the town’s arson problem.
Concerns about sludge remain strong. The worries first surfaced a year ago, when a group called Nisqually Valley Neighbors for a Contaminant-Free Prairie announced itsexistence at the annual Prairie Days parade.
Such well-known Yelm area residents as actress Linda Evans and channeler J.Z. Knight have argued passionately against a proposed sludge disposal project on timberland in the Bald Hills. They fear chemicals and heavy metals in the sludge could pollute both groundwater and the nearby Nisqually.
Just three weeks ago, some 150 Yelm area residents presented the Thurston County Commissioners with a petition signed by 7,250 people. The commissioners declined to
formally support the effort, but the fierce community opposition has led the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle to put its plans on hold for two years.
The struggles against arson and sludge have contributed to an upsurge in community pride, which asserts itself at the town’s entrances in the form stylish new signs with the slogan “Pride of the Prairie” — a motto also available on sweat shirts, which cost $18 at city hall.
And a recent Prairie Days parade attracted hundreds of spectators, who lined up several rows deep.
“It was so jammed that you couldn’t even see the parade,” said Yelm Realty’s Jones.
Plenty of room to stretch out
Newcomers say they selected Yelm for the rural lifestyle, for the school district and the beautiful natural surroundings. Situated on a flat, grassy prairie near the Nisqually River, the town is dominated on clear days by the looming, snow-streaked mass of Mount Rainier.
“There’s nothing you can ask for that this community doesn’t have, in terms of natural aesthetics,” said lifetime resident Mike Edwards, president of the community-owned Prairie Security Bank. “We have a very nice lifestyle in this area.”
“I came here because the property was reasonable and we wanted some acreage,” said Marly Steckler, who moved to Yelm from Seattle with her husband and preschool children. “The growth is all right. If it bothers me, I’ll move.”
With less than 11,000 residents in southeast Thurston County, the Yelm countryside feels far from crowded. But some worry that traffic and other problems will worsen in the coming decade, during which Thurston County planners expect the southeast county’s population to reach nearly 18,000.
“I don’t want it to grow. I like it the way it is.” said Ed M. Crooks, 61, an eight-year resident who was having a drink at the Stop Inn Lounge. “I’ve seen less traffic in the Chicago Loop than I see right here. If I had my way, I’d put up a road block and make ’em all go through Tumwater.”
“A lot of people get really upset with the traffic,” said Yelm Police Sgt. Jeff D. Norton. “You get a lot of complaints.”
The city hopes to ease some complaints with a $450,000 project intended to improve the town’s main intersection. Construction begins this week. But town and state officials have no immediate plans for dealing with two top local desires: widening state Route 507 from two lanes to four, and adding at least one more traffic light.
‘Barristers’ in sweat pants
Worsening the traffic is the popularity of Ramtha, whose seminars can draw as many as a 1,000 people to the Knight mansion on state Route 507 just outside town. When those events let out, unlucky passersby find themselves stuck in big-city traffic jams.
Although a few residents object to Knight’s activities on religious grounds, many treat her followers with amusement, trading rumors about the little-seen New Age channeler and dubbing her followers “Ramsters.”
“The city joke is — they wear sweat pants,” said Lillian L. Lowe, 57.
Business people welcome the Ramtha devotees, whom they describe as well-
educated, peaceful and frequently affluent. Yelm Thriftway manager David G. Anderson estimates that a major gathering at Knight’s mansion brings his business as much as $6,000.
“I think the community has been quite receptive to her activities,” said Edwards.
‘This is not a cult group where they’re trying to take over local government.”
Except for her involvement in the sludge battle and the conspicuous location of her fenced, sprawling mansion, Knight maintains a low profile around town. She said through a spokesperson last week that she was unavailable for an interview, and her staff members declined to discuss her impact on the community.
Her movement leaves intriguing traces around town, such as a flyer posted on the Yelm Thriftway bulletin board advertising interest-free loans, “which may be helpful for Masters in their attempts to be sovereign in their property, cars, or other items requiring large financial outlays.”
Some residents attribute most of the area’s growth to Knight’s followers, but that
claim seems exaggerated. Dr. Elledge, who is acquainted with Knight and whose Nisqually Clinic is located only a short distance from her estate, said that Ramtha devotees account for only a small percentage of his patients.
“It gives us something to talk about,” said Elledge, a slim man with a salt-and-pepper beard who moved to Yelm 10 years ago.
“She’s just a normal person.”
Looking forward and back
Although some Ramtha followers and other new residents reportedly are bringing substantial wealth to the Yelm area, the area remains characterized by mobile homes, vehicle-cluttered lawns and low family incomes.
In the 1980 census, Yelm residents reported a median annual income of $11,977, compared to an average countywide income of $17,946, with 16 percent of all residents living below the poverty level. Yelm’s school district serves free or reduced-price lunches to 55 percent of its students, and has trouble convincing teachers to move to the area due to a lack of middle-class housing.
“Our population is poor,” said Superintendent Glen L. Nutter. “We have some very, very nice homes, but we have probably the biggest mobile home population in the county. We don’t have many middle class places to live.”
And while growth has brought plenty of people to the county, there have been few new jobs. Yelm officials have sought to attract new business to downtown with a revitalization program that has brought two streetlights to downtown and face lifts to most storefronts.
The decision to construct a sewer system followed the discovery of increased nitrate no levels in town wells. Although the project’s main goal is to protect water quality, City Clerk Shelly A. Badger said the sewer system will allow development which formerly would have required prohibitively large septic tanks.
“We’ve had projects killed just because there’s not a sewer system here,” she said, adding that motels, large restaurants and multifamily housing could follow once the sewer system is completed.
But whether Yelm eventually emerges as a small city or an extensive suburb may depend on unknown factors such as the price of gasoline and the willingness of companies to move to Thurston County. Whatever the future holds, some residents will continue to recall with fondness the days when Yelm was a more neighborly place.
“After a year or two here, you knew everybody you saw,” said Elledge. “Now you go to the store and you don’t feel that same sort of small town community closeness.”
Yelm Residents Comment
Rick D. Bowler, 27, a forklift operator who has lived in Yelm for three years: “I remember when I first moved here it was nothing to drive through town, now the traffic is ridiculous. With so many people they need a bigger highway. It’s basically not too bad – a pretty good country life, I would say.”
Helen P. Molinek, 32, a homemaker who has been in Yelm for eight months: “The growth hasn’t affected me a whole lot because I’m so new. I’m part of the growth. I don’t think Yelm has the potential to support a lot of commerce so I really don’t think it’s going to affect Yelm that much. I really like the small town atmosphere.”
James F. Bridge, 58, a Baptist preacher who has lived in Yelm for 11 years: “Things are more congested than they used to be. The traffic through Yelm is really heavy. At night it’s bumper-to-bumper for two hours at least. I think of lot of this is because of J.Z. Knight. That whole New Age thing has had an influx here.”
Kathy K. Gendron, 41, a data entry supervisor who has lived in Yelm for 11 years: “I’ve noticed a lot of growth. I don’t like to see it growing as much as it is, but it’s progress. I can remember when I was going to high school and everybody knew everybody, and you don’t anymore.”
Lowell W. Kennedy, 63, a retired heavy construction worker who has lived in Yelm for four years: “It bothers me a little bit. I didn’t expect it to grow up this fast. Even if it keeps growing like it is, things are going to get higher in price. You’re going to lose that atmosphere of that little old town.”
Mary P. Keen, 50, a retired communications officer who has lived in Yelm for nine months:
“When we first came out here this seemed like a real countrified, little town. But if you come out here on rush hour it’s as bad as Tacoma. I find that people are reacting here now like they did in Tacoma “
A quick look at town of Yelm
Location: The town of Yelm is located in southeast Thurston County near the Pierce County border. Olympia is 20 miles to the northwest, while the employment center at Fort Lewis is 20 miles to the northeast.
Size: 710 acres.
Population (town): 1,425.
Population (unincorporated southeast Thurston County): 9,060.
Median income, 1980 census: $11,977.
Largest private employer: Hytec Inc., 144 employees. Hytec makes showers, hot tubs and other fiberglass bath products.
Largest public employer: Yelm Community Schools, with more than 300 employees.
Government: Mayor-council system. The mayor appoints city employees and presides over council meetings, but only the five council members vote. Salaries are $315 a month for the mayor, $100 a month for council members.
Schools: Yelm Community Schools includes a high school, a middle school and three elementary schools serving 3,100 students. A new elementary school is expected to open by the fall of 1990.
Geography: Yelm is located on a flat prairie about 340 feet above sea level. To the south, the land slopes uphill to the Bald Hills. To the north, the land drops more steeply to the Nisqually River.
History: Pioneers settled the prairie in the late 1800s, and the town developed a dairy-leased economy. The town was incorporated in 1924 and grew slowly for the next half century.
Rick D. Bowler, 27, a forklift operator who lived in Yelm for three years:
“I remember when I first moved here it was nothing to drive through town, now the traffic is ridiculous. With so many people they need a bigger highway. It’s basically not too bad – a pretty good country life, I would say.”
Helen P. Molinek, 32, a homeworker who has been in Yelm for eight months:
“The growth hasn’t affected me a whole lot because I’m so new. I’m part of the growth. I don’t think Yelm has the potential to support a lot of commerce so I really don’t think it’s going to affect Yelm that much. I really like the small town atmosphere.”
James F. Bridge, 58, a Baptist preacher who has lived in Yelm for 11 years:
“Things are more congested than they used to be. The traffic through Yelm is really heavy. At night it’s bumper-to-bumper for two hours at least. I think a lot of this is because of J.Z. Knight. That whole New Age thing has had an influx here.”
Kathy K. Gendron, 41, a data entry supervisor who has lived in Yelm for 11 years:
“I’ve noticed a lot of growth. I don’t like to see it growing as much as it is, but it’s progress. I can remember when I was going to high school and everybody knew everybody, and you don’t anymore.”
Lowell W. Kennedy, 63, a retired heavy construction worker who has lived in Yelm for four years:
“It bothers me a little bit. I didn’t expect it to grow up this fast. Even if it keeps growing like it is, things are going to get higher in price. You’re going to lose that atmosphere of that little old town.”
Mary P. Keen, 50, a retired communications officer who has lived in Yelm for nine months:
“When we first came out here this seemed like a real countrified, little town. But if you come out here on rush hour it’s bad as Tacoma. I find that people are reacting here now like they did in Tacoma.”
(Prepared by Brendan Young)